As winter holidays approach, many Americans won’t just miss out on celebratory meals because of isolation forced on them by the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead millions of people in the US will go literally hungry due to the deep economic crisis gripping the country.
Tens of millions of Americans have long faced hunger, but the pandemic, which has left more than 323,000 dead in America and devastated the economy, has worsened lack of access to sufficient food.
At least 35 million people faced hunger in the US before Covid-19. That figure includes more than 10 million children, according to Feeding America. But in 2020, more than 50 million might struggle with hunger. Among them: 17 million children.
Bryan Singleton, executive director of Action Pact, a social services organization that operates five food banks in rural Georgia, said the need for food assistance has “quadrupled” since Covid-19 hit.
“We’ve had food distributions where we’ve literally had hundreds of vehicles lined up to get food,” he said. “We live in a food desert anyway, we’re a very rural area. It was just exaggerating what we experience on a normal basis.”
“We do food drives each year to stock up our shelves–we’ve had to completely abandon those because of the pandemic, because of the scarcity of the food,” he continued. “We’ve had to abandon those just because the need was so great.”
Singleton said that the surge in need stemmed from sudden, widespread unemployment that came in the wake of Covid-19 business closures and slowdowns.
“These weren’t our traditional clientele. These were folks who a week or two before had jobs and never had the need for our services,” he explained.
The holiday week presents another challenge. Some places which provide food will be closed for a day or two. Singleton said that Action Pact has been working with local organizations and churches to ensure that people who need food this week can still get help.
Rafael Tapia Jr, vice-president of programs for the Partnership With Native Americans, said that food insecurity has long been a problem in indigenous communities, remarking: “These are not new issues.”
One in four people in Native American communities faces food insecurity – about twice as much as other communities, he said. “Covid has brought more attention to, escalated, and intensified food insecurity,” Tapia said.
New York City, which was the US center of Covid-19 this spring, is also reeling from widespread hunger.
Leslie Gordon, Food Bank For New York City’s president and CEO, said in a statement Tuesday that the new Covid-19 relief package – which includes a temporary 15% increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and money for emergency food initiatives – will provide some relief, but that long-term aid is much-needed.
“This legislation will help millions of Americans at this critical time, and it represents a step in the right direction,” Gordon saidt. “At the same time, we still have so much work to do so our low-income neighbors can put a warm meal on the table.”
“Food insecurity has surged since the onset of the pandemic – since the start of the outbreak alone, Food Bank For New York City has distributed more than 77 million meals to New Yorkers in need, a 70% increase over last year,” the statement said. “Comprehensive, long-term relief is critical to protecting low-income communities and rebuilding this country.”
Heber Brown III, senior pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, launched the Black Church Food Security Network in 2015 to fight “food apartheid” – the layers of factors that contribute to food insecurity in long-marginizalized communities.
“This year in particular,” Brown said, “the challenges have been in some ways very familiar, and in some ways demanded a different level of attention.” Not only did the pandemic increase food insecurity – restrictions on social gatherings prevented traditional outreach at places such as churches, he said.
The network’s Black-church supported agriculture program, which facilitates bulk purchases of produce by Black churches from Black farmers, was launched this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Brown said the crisis attests to how initiatives like the network’s efforts – which include using Black church assets, such as land that can be farmed, to sourcing community kitchens – can potentially create a nimble, stable community-based food system.
“If one virus could shut down all these anchor systems of our community,” he said, “we need to have other systems as well. We’ve always been this vulnerable, but this virus just proved it.”